Pantheon of Asian Abstraction
Abstract painting is one of the few forms of imagery that has the power to communicate to a universal audience without the barriers of language or cultural perception that figurative paintings might be confronted by. Liberated from convention, it matters not where a painter is from or when she or he lives, only the beauty of colour, the tactile painterliness of a stroke, the texture of layers, the intensity of lines, the elusiveness of movement are important. To understand without the expression of words is more profound than things that are spoken. In the same manner, few things are more intimate than sharing emotion across time and space, often between strangers, through painting. The human connection, whether longed for or found, is most lyrically captured in abstraction.
In this specially curated section, Sotheby’s presents a selection of works by seven exceptional abstract artists from Asia, who demonstrate extraordinary vision in their experimentation on the abstract art form. While they each came from diverse geographical premises and periods in time, their personal interpretation of abstraction, have together formed a serial thread against the predominance of Western narratives.
Based in France, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki are two of the greatest Chinese abstract painting masters of the 20th century. Their highly regarded works have successfully bridged the soul of traditional Chinese ink painting and Western aesthetics, paving way to a whole new perspective on abstract painting for younger generations of artists. Chu Teh-Chun himself is highly regarded as the Chinese master of lyrical abstraction who incorporates the spirit of nature and cosmos into the sensibility of rhythm and colour. Having moved to post-war Paris for his studies, Chu has since produced his very own artistic language marked by spontaneous
brushstrokes reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy, and surreal juxtapositions of lines and colour that speak of poetic and ethereal elegance. Permeated with dark colour tones and a rich variety of brushstrokes, Composition No.170 (Lot 12) exemplifies Chu’s classic style in the 1960s. Though the upper and lower sections are both covered in layers of dark paint, the subtle thinness of paint on the bottom part especially creates a dripping effect that cannot be missed. Furthermore, in the centre, a mountain landscape is formed by the repetitive overlapping of black, white, blue and brown, inviting the viewer to examine the intricacy of Chu’s outstanding technique.
A classmate with Chu at the Fine Arts School of Hangzhou, Zao Wou-Ki had already mastered the art of calligraphy when he first arrived in Paris. His relentless pursuit on surpassing his own practice in the foreign land can be seen in the lots on offer (Lots 1 - 5). Ranging from end of 1950s to 1990s, together the works provide an encompassing look into the development of Zao’s flourishing career in the latter half of the century, divided into three significant stages-- from the initial semi-figurative style, to pure abstraction, and finally conquering the quintessence of the spiritual state of mind. The water colour drawing Untitled displays a lighter touch in Zao’s practice that strays from his oil painting works.
One of the pioneer abstract painters in the Philippines during the same period, Fernando Zobel proved to be a virtuoso in playing with the many variations of the abstract art form. Inspired by the work of Mark Rothko he saw during his stay as a visiting artist at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Zobel would later focus on contemplating the range of emotions evoked by colours and lines. His innovated use of the hypodermic syringe in his practice had also contributed to some of the most renowned works including Arstzia (Lot 9), 1959, from the important Saeta series. Together with Le Presa (Lot 10), the two are representative pieces that highlight the emotional and tender sides of Zobel’s artistic practice respectively. In the monochromatic Arstzia, 1959, thin straight black lines crisscross and slice through the white background resembling the speed and movement of flying arrows, contrasting greatly with the dreamlike haze and serenity stylistically rendered in Le Presa, which was derived from of Zobel’s absolute favorite subjects, the area around the river Jucar around the perimeter of Cuenca, Spain. The Jucar is a narrow river and the water moves as gently as the weeping willows that line the river. The motion of the brush captures a subtle sense of movement, the rustling of leaves against the whisper of the wind as they dance with light and shadows. As the willow branch meets its own reflection on the water, Zobel immortalized this poetry in motion in a single vignette.
Born in 1977 in the Shanxi province, Liu Jiutong belongs to a new generation of abstract painters from China who were exposed to the stylistic trail left behind by artists of the previous generations such as Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun. At the same time, the immediate surroundings during the 1990s and millennium in China also became a critical source of inspirations that distance their visual aesthetics from works of the past. Liu, who had never studied abroad, deeply embraces the water motif in his practice, which is directly related to the frequent water shortages in his Northeastern hometown. With Liu’s unique imagination, the poetic element of abstraction is also expanded and contextualised into the titles of his works, as seen in Mountain of Memories (Lot 11). For this work’s title, a line from Tang Dynasty major poet Meng Haoran’s poem is used not only to present a linkage between image and text, but further tracing back to the beauty and charm of the ancient Chinese literary culture. The work perfectly displays Liu’s exceptional skill in conveying traditional Chinese aesthetics, rendering the composition of a rocky path leading up to the peak which is shrouded in mist, raindrops and clouds, a thought-provoking and engaging image that reveals Liu’s raw emotional state at the time.
Lalan (Xie Jinglan) met Zao Wou-Ki at the age of fifteen and with him moved to France in 1948. Her musical background and training previously at the Fine Arts School of Hangzhou had an immense influence towards the artist’s unique perception of the art form that clearly set her apart from Zao, Chu, or any other female artists of the time. As she once wrote, “The gesture of painting emanates from sounds and gestures inherent in the human body.” Le Picador (Lot 6) was produced in the early period of Lalan’s career before she turned to representational aesthetics. The quiet and subdued layer of white immediately stands as a strong and direct contrast with the intense bouquet of colours in the centre of the canvas. On a closer look, vibrant lines of blue, green, red, and yellow intertwine across different layers, at once radiating a rich exuberance parallel to Lalan’s own sublime artistic merit. The subtle tonal colour shift in the background culminating in a vivid burst of colour suggest the streaming of music – from adagio (slow) to andante (walking pace) to allegro (fast and bright) before culminating in vivace (lively).
We Made the Red Path (Lot 7) by one of the most distinguished Indonesian artists of the present, Ay Tjoe Christine, can be considered as a linear continuity to Lalan and other female abstract painters in the previous generation. Her initial career as a graphic artist had allowed the artist to experiment with dry-point technique frequently seen in her paper and canvas works. For this painting from her recurring layer series, signatory fragile black and white lines are seen dancing through the semi-figurative dark red pigments, suggesting the notion of disjuncture and sensibility within the modern human world. As what the artist said of her works, “I’m very concerned about the universal human experience in this age of globalisation and fast-paced living, and I try to explore these conceptual dialogues in my artwork. […] They are like modern-day parables, almost.”1 Like most abstract artists, Ay Tjoe Christine’s works are highly personal and are latent expressions of emotion, a means to not only to define a sense of self but also to create human connections.
An intriguing comparison can be drawn between Ay Tjoe Christine’s layer series and Zeng Fanzhi’s fleshy and expressive A Series.Captivated by the violent brushstroke in German Expressionism since his early school days, shortly after he graduated from the Hubei Academy of Fine Art, Zeng Fanzhi had already produced a significant body of works that received wide acclaim from notable curators in China. A Series No. 1 (Lot 8) created in 2000, situates within a critical period of Zeng’s career, a time when the painter began to ponder and explore his path, both in terms of subject matter and technique, away from the immensely popular Mask series of the time. The abstract work, the first from the A series, is of great importance and rarity as it embodies key elements from Zeng’s most distinctive phases and serves as a prelude to the later critically acclaimed Landscape series. On the first view, one is immediately drawn to the gush of reddish hue in the centre of the canvas. Along with the faint paint drips flowing along the two sides of the painting, the composition can be considered to be a reinterpretation of the ferocious motif, most notably represented by the image of bloody meat as seen in the early Hospital series and Meat series. The combination between translucency and opacity harkens back to the delicate contrasts in Song Dynasty paintings, which both Fanzhi and Zao Wou-Ki have noted as a significant influence.
Intersecting numerous temporal and terrestrial realms, these seven pioneering artists reimagined abstract aesthetics through drawing trajectories from traditional cultures, modern societies, and reflecting on the inner self. The works presented ultimately offer a wide spectrum of the flourishing development in abstract art throughout modern and contemporary art history. Most importantly, these works are testaments to the enduring importance and relevance of abstract art, not only as a formal exploration of painterly ingenuity but also as an examination of the human condition. Stemming always from personal experiences, the emotional resonance that is transferred onto two-dimensional form is revelatory. From the moment a brush touches the surface of a canvas or paper, the weight of a gesture has the ability to speak volumes about the frame of the mind or the lightness of the heart. Abstract art encapsulates human experience, whether through moments of joy or periods of trials, along with the transformation that occurs thereafter. These paintings are not about creating but about living.
As American Abstract Expressionist, Arshille Gorky once said, “Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot physically see with his eyes... Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an explosion into unknown areas.”